In August Tube staff
in London voted in favour of strike action over jobs and conditions. The vote
was massively in favour of strike action with 1,369 for and only 70 against.
The workers are facing job losses and threats to their pensions after Metronet,
which is responsible for running nine London Tube lines, went into
administration in July. The workers are demanding guarantees that their jobs
are not at risk. As these guarantees were not forthcoming this week the workers
acted on the August ballot and came out on a 3-day strike. According to all
reports the strike was a huge success.
The strike has had a
major impact on the economic life of London. Some analysts estimated that it
may have cost the London economy up to £50m a day. Many companies in London
were faced with a situation where staff could not get into work or were coming
in very late, severely disrupting their activities.
Yesterday, 30 hours into
the strike action, the strike was called off after the company declared it was
prepared to negotiate, but if nothing concrete comes out of these talks, next
week’s planned strike could go ahead.
Metronet was set up under London Underground’s public-private partnership
(PPP) initiative. Its failure is a failure of PPP. RMT general secretary Bob
Crow said: "Our members have said with a single, united voice that they
are not prepared to be made to pay for the failure of the PPP with their jobs,
conditions or pensions." He added that, "What our members want is to be
transferred to a public-sector organisation, and that is the only way in which
their jobs and pensions can be protected." General secretary for Transport Salaried
Staffs’ Association (TSSA), Gerry Doherty, said: "Metronet shareholders
may be able to walk away from this PPP fiasco but it is our members who are
being asked to pick up the bill with lost jobs, transfers and pension
At the end of August
the first national strike by prison officers in England and Wales came to an
end after their union agreed to reopen talks with the government over pay. The
action of the prison officers was solid as all 129 non-private prisons were
disrupted after the sudden walkout by about 20,000 staff. A High Court
injunction was issued against the Prison Officers’ Association (POA) but so
militant was the mood that many members initially refused to go back to work.
The POA had pulled out of a no-strike agreement with government prior to taking
action. The union said it had decided to call the strike without giving any
prior warning precisely to avoid attracting a court order!
An independent pay review body for prisons recommended a 2.5% increase. But
the prison officers’ union, with its 28,000 members, said its value is reduced
to below inflation levels because the government’s proposal is to introduce it
in two stages.
This was followed at the beginning of September by rank and file police
officers demanding that they be given back their right to strike as relations
with the government fell to a 30-year low.
Now The Police Federation, with its
140,000 members, the Fire Brigades Union and the prison officers’ union are
planning to meet to discuss a joint campaign over below-inflation rises.
In particular, the prospect of the
police making public demands over the right to strike would be hugely
embarrassing to the Prime Minister as he tries to hold back the pressure for
higher wages increases. The government is offering a rise of 2.3 per cent but
police officers have put in a counterclaim for 3.94 per cent, in line with the
Police officers are banned not only
from taking strike action but even from discussing it. But earlier this year in
a ballot of the rank and file there was an overwhelming vote to study the
option of lobbying for the full right to strike if their pay claim is not met.
health workers in Manchester have been in dispute over suspension of a union
official. Karen Reissmann, a psychiatric nurse and union shop steward, was
suspended back in June accused of bringing the trust into disrepute. In reality
she has was targeted by NHS bosses for speaking out against service cuts. A
3-day strike has already taken place and another is planned.
Meanwhile three unions representing nuclear
scientists and technicians in charge of major decommissioning programmes
at atomic plants recently threatened strike action for the first time in 25
years. This time strike action proved unnecessary. The mere threat of action by
this key sector led to the government giving in and conceding a 3.99% increase,
well above the 2% maximum set by the government for public sector workers. The deal has been hailed by union leaders as
"the best public-sector pay settlement this year". This year
there have also been two days of strike
action by 113,000 civil servants.
All this reveals a growing mood of
militancy in the public sector and it looks more and more likely that Gordon
Brown is on a collision course with this section of the working class. Gordon Brown has insisted that he will not
budge on public-sector pay. His position is: "We have succeeded in
tackling inflation and having a stable economy because of discipline in pay
over these last 10 years. That discipline will have to continue."
Next week the TUC meets in Brighton
and a call is being made to the delegates to condemn the 2% cap on
public-sector pay rises. These developments highlight the mounting
unrest in the public sector over wage levels as unions threaten what is
becoming known as an "autumn of discontent" for Gordon Brown.
There are now growing
signs that this mood may also spill over into the private sector. An example is
the strike at the Coca Cola bottling plant in Milton Keynes where over 140 trade
union members came out on strike on Monday, the third day of strike action at
the plant this year. Again the dispute is over wage levels. The company has
offered an increase of 2.5% which is the same increase that the company has
proposed for the last four years. But the workers are not satisfied as this is
below the rate of inflation and basically means a wage cut in real terms. They
are seeking an offer in line with inflation of no less than 3.8%.
The few examples given
above indicate that the mood among British workers is changing. It is becoming
more militant. They are reaching the limit of what they can take and now this
is beginning to express itself in militant strike action.
This will have
important ramifications for the overall political scenario of Britain. For the
ruling class the usefulness of a Labour government is to be found fundamentally
in its ability to hold back the working class from struggle. Because of its
relationship with the unions the Labour Party has always had an advantage over
the Tories in this sense. The trade union leaders, and the working class as a
whole, see the Labour government as "their" government, and are prepared to
accept from it what they would not accept from the direct representatives of
the bosses, the Tories.
However, there is a
limit to how long this can last. The workers can take a lot but their patience
has a limit. In Britain that patience is being tried beyond the limit. If the
present wave of trade union disputes continues then the ruling class of this
country will start to rethink their relationship with the Labour leadership and
with Gordon Brown in particular. What is in question is not Gordon Brown’s
loyalty to capitalism. What is in question is his ability to deliver! A new
period is beginning to open up in Britain.